These are just a few excerpts from the many inspiring selections in Muse 16. To order a copy and read the entire issue, please visit our Support the Muse/Order Copies page.
Pam Freeman, Triptych:65/75/85
Dearing Award Winner
“Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” –Bette Davis
65 / Old Naked Woman
An old naked woman
Sometimes shows up uninvited
In my bathroom mirror
Late in the evening
When I’ve been reading
Over merlot and potato chips
And now it’s bedtime, brushing teeth
Nightgown waits on the door hook
But there she is
Looking vaguely like a relative
Distant in time, hometown, kin ties
No one close, certainly
Yet she insists on skinny-dipping in the tub
So I fill it with scented bubbles
And in we go
Any wine left? she says
I dutifully drip to the kitchen
To pour a glass for her
Soon she’s tipsy and gabbling on
About men from the past and girls and moments
Embarrassing to me, hilarious to her
She won’t quit and finally I give up and giggle too
And then we’re off, yelling power ballads and party anthems
Swapping lies, then secrets
Then, in the cooling bathwater, truth
I know one of these days
She won’t leave
She’ll stick around like she owns the place
And me with it
And I’ll have to let her
75 / Old Wives’ Tale
Why do we say “old wives’ tale”
Old wives are the bravest
Their husbands’ hearts crash and burn
Leaving them to pack up the closet
Breathe the familiar smells goodbye
Donate the golf clubs
Live with half the toaster unscorched
Half the bed smooth
Leaving them to stare at the oil spot
On the blank space in the garage
Like a map tack on a glacier
Which in turn is barely a hopscotch square
On a sidewalk marbled like Sunday china
Under a plaid whirling uniform skirt
Compared to the borderland
Where their man has disappeared
Leaving them to rudder through crosswinds of memory
Leaving time congealed and tomorrow an unmarked glide path
It’s our own dark unease
Pointing away from its shame
To call every silly myth
An old wives’ tale
We can’t bear to witness
Old wives’ truth
85 / Old Heart Fading
If I had a bike I’d ride you on the bars
Back to that not-yet-instant when God
Nocked the arrow of eternity
Held her breath, let it fly
Hit the switch to light the stars
If I had shining eyes I’d be the mirror you deserve
But even with these milky drooping cataracts
You are a miracle I notice every day
I’d trace your contours
Color every curve
If I were truly good I’d earn a place
To shout forever in the company of saints
Joke’s on them, I’d sooner sail the skies with you
Two pirate galaxies a-spin
In spiraling uncharted space
Be my valentine be mine
This old heart’s fading
Like the one you made so long ago
Names in crayon side by side
Pasted out of paper, lace and twine
But it still rings as strong and true
As all the love that you define
However much the time we have
However much our time
Eric v.d. Luft, On Reading Poetry in a Car Service Waiting Room
I knew it might be a long wait
so I brought copies of Blood and Thunder
and The Healing Muse
I study them.
The technician comes in and tells me
that I need
an air filter
a cabin filter
a shock absorber
a tire rotation
and an oil change.
Gladly I say,
Whatever it takes."
A week ago I was sitting in another waiting room
reading Wordsworth and John Clare,
the waiting room of the ICU
where my brother-in-law lay dying.
We did not say, even sadly,
Whatever it takes."
We let him go.
However complicated, it is
relatively easy to put a car back together
to make it perfect again
running like new.
How difficult to repair a person.
We let him go.
Even the most smoothly running car
is not as valuable
as the most miserable
moribund human life.
Emily Weston, The Hero
David is 38 years old. He has been a nurse long enough that almost nothing makes him gag anymore, but not long enough that he is annoyed if he misses lunch because of a cardiac arrest. In his mind, full of logic and order and straight lines, this is a not very precise measurement, but he understands that if he reaches the point where he’s doing CPR and wishing the patient could have waited until after he ate, then he’s been a nurse for a very long time.
On an average day doing charge on A6, David answers 32 phone calls, starts seven IVs and corrects four mistakes made by new nurses. He hangs eight new bags of IV fluid, questions fifteen new MD orders, discharges four patients and admits five new ones. He helps eight people to the bathroom, cleans up six dirty beds and helps other nurses and techs lift or reposition a total of one ton of human flesh. He clocks between three and seven miles on his fitbit. When he gets home at night, he lays on the couch and stares at the ceiling. Some days A6 is more work than the Air Force.
He likes it, though. Likes that he knows the answers, he can assist and correct, likes the way illness and disability don’t faze him anymore, because there’s something he can do. And he likes the way he moves. In a place where walking down the hall is a feat and so many are hampered by stiff knees, disease and extra weight, he walks easily, for hours, his body still lean and strong from years in the service, a lodestone of order and sanity in his cluttered and chaotic environment.
On Tuesday morning, after switching the assignment twice (the pregnant nurse can’t take the chemo patient and the patient in 20 door is suddenly refusing male RNs) David illegally eats a Clif Bar in the med room.
Three call lights are going off. One will be 20 door, asking to page the doctor about her change in morphine dose. 16 door is probably ready to come off the bedpan and the other, well, it could be anybody. He swallows his Clif Bar and thinks he’ll make a break for his water bottle in the break room but as soon as he steps out of the med room, he is confronted by middle-aged man in a Vietnam hat.
“You know what’s going on with my wife?” he says.
“Who is your wife, sir?” His mouth is dry. 15 steps and he can grab his water.
“I’m Howie. My wife is Beatrice.” The man gestures towards 18. “She’s been here for a week and can’t nobody tell me what’s wrong. You doctors just sit around with your thumbs up your ass all day or something?”
David is thinking about Beatrice. He’s been hearing her rattling cough and raspy voice much longer than a week, and he’s pretty sure she’s dying. Then he realizes the man’s mistake. “Howie, I’m not a doctor, but I can page one for you.”
Howie peers at David’s name tag. “Oh,” he says. “What’d you become a male nurse for?” He looks David up and down. “You a homo?”
At the desk, the phone is ringing. There is no secretary today. The nursing tech hurries by, laden with linens. David bites back three ridiculous answers. “I’m not a homo.”
“Hmph,” says Howie. He looks at David’s ringless fingers. “You ever been married?”
David is puzzled now. “I was.”
“Ha! Wish I could say was. Damn woman is a pain in the ass.” He scratches his head beneath his hat. “Nevva mind callin a doc for me. They’re just gonna tell me the same stuff.” He glances towards his wife’s room. “I just thought you was a doctor and maybe…” His sentence hangs, fractured.
David lays a quick hand on the man’s shoulder and goes for the phone. It is his manager, reminding him that the staff have mandatory empathy training over the next two days. OK, he says, while scrolling through Beatrice’s chart. Chronic diastolic heart failure, non-resectable lung tumor, unstaged, history of smoking, DNR. He was willing to bet Howie knew all that stuff, and Beatrice did too. Sometimes people want a different answer.
At 3 pm, staffing changes. He’s down a nurse and the supervisor is sympathetic, but sympathetic doesn’t help do discharge paperwork and turn total care patients. She sends him an LPN and he feels obligated to thank her even though that means he’ll have to look out for the LPN’s patients. At 3:30, the girl in 20 door has screaming meltdown because she’s in horrible pain and the pills aren’t cutting it. 16 window was all set to go home and then his discharge got cancelled because his insurance wouldn’t pay for a critical medication. A new patient arrives from ED, blood pressure is 65/40, confirmed, thank you and and it takes an hour to get her transferred to the ICU.
At 5:30, he finally checks on his patients. The LPN (who would think about lunch while doing CPR) gives him an update, he thanks her, and says hi to all of them. This is a little hazardous because there’s a pretty high chance that one of them will want something that will either be impossible or take a half an hour. But the LPN is good, she knows her stuff, and his patients are well cared for. He checks on Beatrice last.
As soon as he opens the door, he knows his mistake. There’s no rattling cough or raspy voice, and the room feels empty. He steps around the curtain. She lays alone in a quiet room. The light above her head is like a halo. He gets that queer dizzy feeling like the world is shaking a little beneath him. He knows what he will find, but he touches her anyway. There is no pulse at her wrist, her skin is waxy and cooling and the DNR bracelet confirms that his work with her is finished. If I checked on her earlier, he thinks, this might be different. But would it have? Was there anything else he could have done?
He hears a shuffle step behind him. Shit. He turns, and imagines how he must look to Howie. The male nurse, the potential homo, holding Howie’s wife’s dead hand, confirming her non-existence.
The man sits down heavily in a chair at the foot of the bed.
“Howie,” David says.
Howie grunts. His knuckles are tight, squeezing and releasing his legs. Men of that generation do not cry, nor do they show emotion. David slowly places the dead woman’s hand on her chest and walks to Howie. He squats next to the chair and touches Howie. The man stiffens and then grips the nurse’s hand tightly. They both look at Beatrice, beatific beneath the lone fluorescent light. Howie shudders and his head drops to his chest.
In a few moments, David will step out of this sacred moment and into the bright chaos. He will call the supervisor to let her know 18 window has passed. He will help bag the body and send her to the morgue. He will answer more phone calls and call lights, manage the assignment for the night shift. But right now, there is nothing more he can do. He is thinking about Howie, and that both of them will, tonight, be home alone. He is thinking about how, because he is a nurse, it is okay for him to hold hands with a complete stranger, and share sorrow. He is thinking about how it is not that he is a nurse and Howie a client, but that they are two human beings, grieving together for the beautiful temporary blink that is human existence.
Kristen M. Ploetz, Single Vision, Double Take
So it was. Quiet but palpable annoyance slowly mounted. Legs crossed and uncrossed with heavy sighs. Down parkas shifted on laps to make room for dated magazines. Someone opened a granola bar, the crinkle of the wrapper cutting through the silence like a butcher’s knife on bone. Restraint from complaining was wearing thin. I should have been irritated too, but I knew enough to bring a book this time.
I was scheduled for three o’clock sharp. It was a few minutes past four when I finally sat in his chair. My plan to avoid the rush of commuter traffic home was increasingly unlikely, but at least I got a chance to read. I found it hard to be angry with the doctor who carefully cut open my eye four months ago to correct brutal double vision. It was even harder to hold on to anger when he expressed genuine interest in the book I carried. Or when he warmheartedly revealed that he has a daughter only a year older than mine, sharing a few tidbits about what’s yet to come.
The post-op exam took all of five minutes with various lights and lenses. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome, he said. Eyes now aligned and vision fully restored, I was having my last visit.
And then he told me more about his daughter while reaching under his desk into his tattered briefcase. He pulled out a folded slip of paper and showed it to me. He had photocopied a comic strip for her, something to boost her spirits as she walked through the quagmire of third grade relationships. In that brief instant, he shifted from pragmatic doctor to doting father. In turn, I suggested a book he might want to read to better understand the dynamics of young girls and their friendships.
As I left his exam room a few minutes later, he double-checked the title I recommended. Then we parted ways, likely forever. Walking toward the elevator to go home, I felt lighter than I did just an hour before. I was softened more by what he shared with me than what he solved for me.
I was in that exam room for longer than necessary because he chose to connect with a patient despite a waiting room full of ten more. It didn’t matter that I will probably never return. There was no professional need on his part to build more trust and rapport, yet he took the time to engage. I suspect every one else in that waiting room was also treated with similar humanity when it was finally their turn. Perhaps it is why he gets behind in the first instance.
The afternoon light had started to wane. I walked quickly to the train station to make up some time. Standing on the outdoor platform, I took stock of what was around me. An evanescent pink thumbprint of the sun pressed low on the city horizon. A blinking bike light whizzed over the footbridge, keeping perfect time with the beep of the construction truck backing up below. A runner in shorts bravely darted through the frigid air, equal parts inspiration and folly. As the train pulled into the station, I was deeply grateful to once again have the unfettered ability to notice the elegance of the everyday, to witness the endless marvels all around me.
All because of a doctor who graciously takes the time to run late.